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Turkmen Election Reveals Depressingly Familiar Abuses

Observers say the parliamentary election held in Turkmenistan on December 14 was strongly reminiscent of previous polls held over the 17 years that the country has been independent. The security services exerted tight control over the electoral process, while anecdotal evidence suggests that turnout was low.

The 125 seats in the Mejlis were contested by 288 candidates nominated by government-affiliated institutions like the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, the Galkynysh movement, the Central Women’s Council, and the Makhtumkuli youth organisation.

None of the candidates stood as independents.

For this time, there were international observer teams from the United Nations and Commonwealth of Independent States, CIS, and election experts from OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.

In addition, there were special arrangements to allow Turkmen nationals abroad to vote at embassies and other missions.

The authorities were clearing these innovations would excite some public interest in the ballot.

After polling ended late on December 14, the Central Election Committee announced that preliminary data indicated a turnout of 93.87 per cent.

However, NBCentral Asia observers say attendance on the day did not appear to be anything like as high as this figure suggests.

One woman, for example, said afterwards, “I didn’t vote because I don’t know who any of the candidates are. I didn’t read their election programmes and I never saw them.”

“I didn’t vote either,” added a young man from the Ahal region centrally located in the south of the country. “Why vote if the electoral commission members are going to do it instead of us?”

A journalist from Lebap region in eastern Turkmenistan said the reason such pessimistic views were widespread was that people had been kept in the dark – most of them were unaware of any campaigning that took place, while the process of nominating candidates was firmly in the hands of the authorities.

A representative of one polling station in central Turkmenistan said the only reason many voters turned up was that electoral staff went round from house to house “begging, reproving and urging them to do their duty as citizens”.

A woman from a village in northeastern Turkmenistan confirmed that she had been pressured into going to the polls.

“We were forced to vote so as to avoid problems at work,” she said.

An elderly woman from Ashgabat, who never votes herself, described how her sons, who are at university, were told how to vote.

“The lecturers who took them to the polling station told them where to put a tick, and the students obeyed,” she said.

A schoolteacher in the Ahal region said the same happened to her. “We were told in advance who to vote for, so we did,” she said,

Observers in Turkmenistan report that in pursuit of a high turnout figure, procedural breaches were committed such as allowing one person to vote on behalf of family members.

At polling stations where no international monitors were present, people were allowed to vote without presenting proof of identity, and voting were offered pencils instead of pens, meaning that ballot-papers could easily be changed subsequently.

“The domestic observers present at the polling stations tried not to notice such things,” said a local media experts.

Other commentators said the staff of local election commissions included plainclothes officers from the security services, who kept a careful eye on the entire process.

An observer from Dashoguz in the north of the country summed up the situation by saying, “There were violations everywhere.”

Such reports run counter to the democratic principles that the authorities pledged would underlie this election.

A local journalist sent to prepare a dispatch on the vote said that when he turned up at a polling station in Dashoguz, several members of the security services checked his ID with considerable suspicion, and then noted down all his details in a logbook.

“In their eyes, I was a spy who had come to dig up secrets about the way the vote was conducted,” said the journalist.

(NBCentralAsia is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service has resumed, covering Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

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